The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective

Author: Ellen Gruenbaum

The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective. By Ellen Gruenbaum. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 256 pp. $24.95. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

No single author could possibly produce a book as broad-ranging as the volume edited by Shell-Duncan and Hernlund, but Ellen Gruenbaum gives it her best shot. Based on her five years of work in the rural Sudan with infibulating communities, she offers us a thoughtful and engaging meditation on cultural, social and physical aspects of FGC, Gruenbaum “categorically reject[s] the simplistic analysis that female ‘circumcision’ is a conspiracy of men to oppress women.” She shows that FGC is not “a single phenomenon with a single purpose such as ‘controlling women’ or ‘suppressing female sexuality.'” Trained as an anthropologist, the author analyzes her experiences as they relate to the suggestion that patriarchy explains FGC, the ritual and its meanings, marriage and morality, ethnicity (circumcision status often serves as a marker of one’s tribal identity), sexuality (Gruenbaum’s subjects made it clear to her they did experience orgasm), and economic development. Female circumcision, the author writes, “offers a major test of whether it is possible to reconcile cultural relativist respect for cultural diversity with the desire to improve the lives of girls and women across cultural boundaries.”

Regarding the potential for eliminating the practices, Gruenbaum notes that “women’s insecure position in society needs to change before fundamental rejection of circumcision can be achieved.” The possibility of developing alternative rites is mentioned, such as the Kenyan example of “circumcision through words” in which no cutting is done. Gruenbaum’s book includes a helpful list of organizations focused on FGC and mentioning NOCIRC along with eight other groups.

Useful charts and maps in both books help to render more accessible and comprehensible the sometimes bewildering range of prevalence and type of practice in Africa’s different countries. Bettina Shell-Duncan & Ylva Hernlund and Ellen Gruenbaum have crafted engaging, thought-provoking works likely to prove invaluable in the years ahead as attention to analogies and differences between MGC and FGC can be expected to grow.